By Charles Matthews

Monday, July 12, 2010

3. Marcel Proust: A Life, by Edmund White, pp. 57-87

V. Early writings; Robert de Montesquiou; Reynaldo Hahn; Jean Santeuil; Lucien Daudet; Pleasures and Days; influence of Balzac; dueling. VI. Translating Ruskin; "On Reading"; friendships with young aristocrats; travel.
In 1892-93, Proust, Daniel Halévy, Robert Dreyfus and Fernand Gregh started a literary magazine called Le Banquet. When it folded, Proust began publishing fiction in La Revue Blanche. In 1893, he met the dandy Robert de Montesquiou, who became one of the models for Charlus, as he had already been the model for des Esseintes in Huysmans' Against the Grain, although Huysmans had never met him -- he heard about Montesquiou from Mallarmé. Montesquiou was a subject for Proust's mimickry, but he admired his "reverence for the arts and extraordinary social connections; the young man shared the first and coveted the second." But Montesquiou wasn't the only model for Charlus's "tantrums, his preposterous pride in his social position and lineage, his endless monologues." Proust also modeled the baron on the corpulent Jacques Doasan, "who ruined himself heaping presents on a Polish violinist," just as Charlus does with Charles Morel. And White suggest that Proust gave Charlus "his own tyrannical whims, his aestheticizing, and his peevishness."

In 1894, he met the composer Reynaldo Hahn, who was five years his junior, beginning an affair that would last for two years -- "like Proust, he was half-Jewish, gay, and artistic." They "traveled together and were put up in châteaus together by tolerant hostesses." One hostess who tolerated them was Madame Lemaire, whose "tyrannical ... attentions to her guests" influenced Proust in his creation of Madame Verdurin. Their relationship finally foundered on Proust's "obsessive neediness." The scene in which Swann goes searching through Paris for Odette "had its antecedent in Proust's life when he was unable to find Reynaldo and nerly went mad."

In 1895 they visited Sarah Bernhardt at Belle-Île on the coast of Brittany. While there, Proust began writing Jean Santeuil, a novel that he later abandoned. The character he based on himself is not the narrator but is observed in third person. In it, his parents are depicted as "vulgar bullies and obstructionists who stand in the way of their son's social and artistic ambitions," whereas in the Search, written after their deaths, they are "wise, refined, melancholy beings who want nothing but their ailing, neurasthenic son's health and happiness." There is scant mention of homosexuality in the early novel, "although already Proust is disguising his boyfriends as girls," and Jean obsesses over a suspected lesbian relationship over two girls modeled on Hahn and Daudet. Hahn is not represented in the Search: "Already in Jean Santeuil Proust was ridding himself of Hahn by writing about him, since for Proust to paint the verbal portrait of a friend was to give him the kiss-off." White suggests that breaking up with Hahn may have been one reason why Proust stopped working on the novel. But its was also "one of the few equal and reciprocated sexual and romantic relationships of Proust's life" and they remained friends -- Proust read Swann's Way to him while he was working on it, and the relationship of Swann and Odette in the novel, with its "alternating bouts of jealousy and reconciliation," is based on the dynamic of Proust's relationship with Hahn.

Lucien Daudet, seven years younger than Proust, was his next "focus of amorous interest in 1896 and 1897." Daudet was the son of one of the most celebrated French writers of the day and had studied painting with Whistler. Their affair lasted eighteen months, and they, too, remained friends afterward.

Proust's first book, Pleasures and Days, was published in 1896, when he was twenty-seven. It was not enthusiastically received. Anatole France, the model for Bergotte in the Search, "complained that Proust wrote 'sentences long enough to make you consumptive,'" and Léon Blum called it "this book that is too coquettish and too pretty," partly because it was printed in an unusually luxurious and expensive edition, costing four times as much as other books its size. Proust did no significant writing in 1897 and 1899, but read constantly, particularly Balzac.
Proust was influenced by the story of how young, ambitious men from the provinces (epitomized by Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions) could social-climb their way through Paris with the help of mistresses -- and even a powerful male lover: Lucien, for instance, is aided by Vautrin, a master criminal who is clearly in love with him. 
Balzac also gave him "a taste for the theatrical," as in the scenes in Jupien's male brothel in Finding Time Again, the scene in Swann's Way in which Mlle. Vinteuil and her female lover desecrate the portrait of Mlle. Vinteuil's father, and the cruel treatment of Charlus by Mme. Verdurin in The Prisoner. Proust also read Shakespeare, Goethe, and George Eliot, and was especially affected by the character of Casaubon in Middlemarch, "who labored all his life on an insignificant and absurd work," as Proust put it.

In 1897, Proust fought a duel with the novelist Jean Lorrain, who had called Proust "one of those pretty little society boys who've managed to get themselves pregnant with literature" in a review of Pleasures and Days, and managed to suggest that Proust was gay in a newspaper article. (Lorrain was gay, too.) Neither man was injured. He would fight other duels in the years to follow, never harming anyone. (The narrator of the Search alludes to his own duels, but never gives an account of one.)
It was this hypervirile image  that Proust was eager to cultivate, as a way of offsetting his spreading reputation as a homosexual. To be labeled a homosexual in print (as opposed to living a homosexual life in private or discreetly among friends) was social anathema, even in Paris, until the recent past. 

Proust now turned his literary efforts to translating John Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies. He was interested in Ruskin the aesthete, not Ruskin the social thinker and pacifist. White notes that Proust "was a fierce patriot, a proud ex-soldier, and anything but a pacifist." He worked from a literal, word-for-word translation done by his mother and Marie Nordlinger, Hahn's English cousin, and traveled to Amiens with Hahn and to Venice with his mother to see the architecture Ruskin described. "The style Proust worked out in French and retained for his later fiction, with its complex syntax and long sentences (so unusual in French literature) sounds very much like Ruskin." But it's the essay that served as the translation's preface, "On Reading," that constitutes Proust's "first mature piece of writing." It's about the effect of reading on the development of a child's imagination, a theme to which Proust returned in the "Combray" section of Swann's Way. 
What is important to point out is that Proust's first genuine writing came in the form of a personal essay written in opposition to the theories of a major thinker.... So much of the literary art of our times has struck sparks by opposing one genre to another -- novel and memoir, for instance, or fiction and essay.... In Proust's case, the fertile encounter took place between the essay and the novel. 

Proust now made friends among the aristocracy. Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, a member of one of France's most eminent families, is one of the models for Robert de Saint-Loup. Another friends was Antoine de Bibesco, a Romanian prince, who once tried to show Proust how to shake hands with a firmer grip, only to be told that people would think he was gay if he did.
Which is just an indication of how devious the thinking of a homosexual of the period could become -- a homosexual affects a limp handshake so that heterosexuals will not think he is a homosexual disguising himself as a hearty hetero -- whereas in fact he is exactly what he appears to be: a homosexual with a limp handshake...
He was shocked when Bibesco told people what Proust had confided to him: an attraction to another aristocrat, Bertrand de Fénelon. "Proust seems not to have realized how his reputation as a homosexual had become general knowledge in his circle." It turned out that Fénelon was bisexual, but Proust didn't learn it until later years. Fénelon also contributed to the portrait of Saint-Loup: He once walked along the backs of the banquettes in a restaurant to fetch a coat for Proust, as Saint-Loup does for the narrator in The Guermantes Way. Proust also enlisted Bibesco to spy on Fénelon, as the narrator does "in his fits of jealousy over Albertine." With his friends, he traveled to various cathedrals around Paris, recording architectural details that would enter into descriptions in the Search. He went to Holland with Fénelon in 1902, where he saw Vermeer's View of Delft, which is the painting with the patch of yellow that Bergotte goes to see in The Prisoner before being felled by a stroke.

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